Jake Gyllenhaal’s Haunted Critic Goes Wild for Killer Paintings in Art World Horror ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’

Scheming dealers, demonic sculptures and filthy lucre: in Dan Gilroy’s Faustian tale, art takes murderous revenge

BY Ellen Mara De Wachter in Opinion | 05 FEB 19

With a title that looks like the product of a random cult-film-name generator, Velvet Buzzsaw (2019) is peppered with generic art world tropes. Among the numerous signifiers and mannerisms, Jay Jopling-style glasses get a starring role on Jake Gyllenhaal’s nose, dealers are afflicted by the verbal tic of describing work that ‘speaks to’ various themes, and everyone is obsessed with money. Recent notorious artworks get a nod; in the opening scene, set at Art Basel Miami Beach, Gyllenhaal’s art critic Morf Vandewalt dispatches the abject animatronic sculpture Hoboman with a single line: ‘Wolfson; Female Figure; four years ago.’ 

Written and directed by Dan Gilroy, of Nightcrawler (2014) fameNetflix’s new film is a horror set amid the rarefied world of blue chip galleries. ‘Monetize it!’ cries glamorous gallery owner Rhodora Haze to her protégée Josephina. Haze, played by Rene Russo, is a former punk with the tattoos from 1983 to prove it, but these days she seems a little tired of art, finding it ‘so much easier to talk about money’. Josephina, played by Zawe Ashton, has just found her neighbour dead on the landing. He was Vetril Dease, a reclusive artist who wanted to destroy all his paintings but died before he could complete the task. Josephina, hearing about the stash of his work, turns into a modern-day Pandora when she enters his rooms, where a print of Rembrandt’s late self-portrait taped to the wall tells us Dease was a real artist, and appropriates the lot as stock. The problem is, Dease, who grew up in an abusive home and suffered psychological torments his whole life, had been exorcising his demons into his paintings – and they are still there. Cue a major return of the repressed. 

Dan Gilroy, Velvet Buzzsaw, 2019, film still. Courtesy: Netflix

It’s amusing to note how Velvet Buzzsaw demonizes art and its people, and how it stages a clash between different aesthetic stereotypes of the art world. Museums and galleries are sterile: all glass, tiles and decorative pot plants. They resemble vast aquariums, and are filled with sharks. Rhodora and Josephina’s competition is the venal art dealer Jon Dondon, played by Tom Sturridge, who tempts artists to his stable with the sexy promise of ‘cutting edge analytics to maximise deal flow’. Toni Colette’s character, Gretchen, is a museum curator who quits her job to work as an art advisor, returning only to coerce her former colleagues into showing Dease’s works, of which she has managed to nab a few. She also demands that the museum pack up the works it has on show and offer pride of place to Sphere, an Anish Kapoor-like chrome ball punctured with holes for inserting one’s arm and experiencing a ‘unique sensation’. Why should the museum do her the favour? Because, Gretchen barks, ‘There is a tax issue!’

The artist’s studio is where the real horror lies. In Dease’s case, his rooms are poorly lit, untidy, and stuffed full of decomposing, creeping stuff that has the distressing habit of staring back at you. At the other end of the spectrum, blue chip artist Piers (John Malkovich) occupies a vast and nearly-empty warehouse studio, which is suffused with an existential horror borne out of a severe creative block. Piers simply doesn’t know what to do next; anything he tries turns out to be feeble. Rhodora sagely advises him to ‘go do something for nobody but yourself’, and offers him the use of her beach house for the same. 

Dan Gilroy, Velvet Buzzsaw, 2019, film still. Courtesy: Netflix

In the Faustian pact between art and money, art gets its revenge. As the film draws nearer to its conclusion, the manner in which each bedevilled artwork takes murderous revenge on its procurer becomes increasingly inventive. The name ‘Vetril Dease’ is a near-anagram of ‘Devil Satire’, a fact Gilroy claims he was unaware of when he chose it for his central character. But, as the film’s title would suggest, Velvet Buzzsaw isn’t especially cutting – or devilish – as a satire. The art world is already quite good at satirising itself, and if you want to see its vices exposed in ludicrous technicolour, HBO’s recent feature-length documentary about the art market, The Price of Everything (2018), would make for a hair-raising pairing.

Main image: Dan Gilroy, Velvet Buzzsaw, 2019, film still. Courtesy: Netflix

Ellen Mara De Wachter is based in London, UK.